The origins of the Six-Day war that changed the face of the Middle East are very different from the common historical narrative. The entire affair was a mistake engendered by an intelligence lapse that may or may not have been deliberate. I learned this during an interview with Jonathan Pollard at the Butner Federal Prison where he is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel, itself a travesty and miscarriage of justice that no one seems to have the nerve to rectify. But that is another story. What Pollard, who had access to highly classified material during the period he served with Naval Intelligence, volunteered to me is both shocking and disturbing because what otherwise might be described as a comedy of errors has had tragic consequences and put Israel in a hazardous situation from which it appears unable to extricate itself.
According to Pollard, Soviet intelligence informed Nasser that Israel intended to attack Egypt, which was false. Pollard says it is not clear if this was simply a failure of Soviet intelligence or a deliberate provocation to start a war in the Middle East. Whatever the reason, Nasser believed the report and ordered his air force to mobilize. Israeli intelligence got wind of this and reported that Nasser was planning to attack Israel, which he had no intention of doing. The Soviets also told him that Israel was massing troops at the Syrian border. Based on this erroneous conclusion, the Israeli air force struck and demolished the Egyptian air force in its entirety and then attacked Egypt, pushing its army back until Israel controlled all of Sinai. Because Syria, with Egypt, was technically part of the same country, the United Arab Republic, a nation in name only, Israel moved against Syria and seized the Golan Heights. It also bombed the American ship, the Liberty, claiming it had been a mistake. Israeli troops also moved against Jordan, which had entered the war reluctantly, and took all of Jerusalem that Jordan had captured during the 1948 war as well as Gaza and the West Bank, all of which they occupied. In doing this, Israel, created a constant source of friction between Israel and the Palestinians, who had no desire to be part of Jordan and who had rebelled to free themselves from Hashemite rule. The Palestinians played no part in the war and were innocent bystanders who had not fired a shot against Israeli troops. Many of them were displaced and joined the refugee camps to which victims of the 1948 war had fled.
Shimon Perez, who served two terms as Israeli prime minister although he was never elected in his own right, came up with the idea of the settlement program, something that in recent years he claimed to regret. Ariel Sharon ordered the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza but the occupation of the West Bank persists, with Israel continuing to expand the settlements there. They have also moved Jews into Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, which they claim as Israeli territory and part of united Jerusalem, the new capital of Israel.
When Egypt attacked an unprepared Israel during the Yom Kippur war in order to reverse the results of the 1967 war, its troops were successful in driving Israeli forces back from the Sinai and threatened to invade Israel proper. Golda Meier pleaded with President Nixon to provide her with new aircraft and other armaments she needed to repel the attack but Henry Kissinger advised against it. Nixon overruled her and sent the planes, enabling Israel to beat back the Egyptians and regain the upper hand. That led to the Arab oil boycott that caused Nixon to end the gold standard and let the dollar float freely, changing the course of American economic history. Israel and Egypt made peace, with Israel returning the Sinai in exchange for full diplomatic recognition and trade between the two countries. But no such agreement was reached with Syria and with no one representing the Palestinians, they were powerless to end the Israeli occupation of their territory.
And so the stalemate continues, all because the Soviet Union misinformed Nasser of Israel’s intentions. Egypt’s ignominious defeat and the new American policy of providing Israel and Egypt with considerable amounts of aid generated a smoldering resentment in the Arab world and particularly in Egypt because of the military dictatorship established by Mubarak after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as leader of Al Qaeda, was a physician and dissident in Egypt whom Mubarak imprisoned in one of his cages where prisoners were packed in unsanitary conditions. When he escaped, he joined forces with Bin Laden and encouraged him to declare war against the United States because of its support of Mubarak, whom the revolution in Egypt eventually overthrew, leading to the victory of the Moslem Brotherhood and the Salafist victory in the parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, in Syria the revolt against Assad has become a virtual civil war, with one of the resentments against him being his failure to get the Golan Heights back from Israel.
All of this was caused by an accident in history. The Soviet Union is long gone and the Arab socialism it sponsored vanished as well. The Middle East is now an unknown, with the future looking increasingly dangerous and Israel’s position more precarious than it has been in decades, all the result of a failure of intelligence a half a century ago.